Washington rejects Moscow’s claims about targeting of its airstrikes – Russia’s first major military action outside borders of former Soviet Union since cold war
Washington has accused Moscow of throwing “gasoline on the fire” of the Syrian civil war, rejecting Russia’s claims that its first airstrikes in the war-torn country had targeted Islamic State terrorists.
In a dramatic escalation of the conflict in Syria, Russia launched a series of airstrikes on Wednesday that it said were aimed at Isis terrorists but which mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Russian gambit – the first time the country has launched major military action outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since the end of the cold war – came two days after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, spoke to the UNand called for an international coalition against terrorism to fight Isis.
Multiple reports from the ground, however, suggested the Russian airstrikes on Wednesday had targeted groups linked to the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition to Assad. A resident of Talbiseh in Homs said two airstrikes primarily hit residential areas of the town, killing about 20 people.
Ashton Carter, the US defence chief, said his understanding was also that the Russian strikes “were in areas where there were probably not Isil forces,” the closest that any US official went on Wednesday to declaring that Moscow – instead of attacking Isis – had attacked the enemies of Assad.
The veneer of cooperation that the US president, Barack Obama, and Putin had sought to establish at the UN this week was pierced.
“Russia states an intent to fight Isil on the one hand, and to support the Bashar al-Assad regime on the other. Fighting Isil without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria – and with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting,” said Carter at an impromptu press conference. “So that approach is tantamount … to pouring gasoline on the fire.”
Carter stopped short of demanding an end to the airstrikes, suggesting it was not too late for Russia to change its position.
Speaking outside Moscow on Wednesday, Putin said Russia would not “plunge head-first” into the conflict but would provide temporary air support for a Syrian army offensive.
Russia’s defence ministry confirmed airstrikes had taken place, claiming the targets were military and communication equipment “belonging to the terrorists of Isis”.
A day after the Pentagon announced that Carter was establishing a communications channel with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoygu, to “deconflict” any overlapping airstrikes, Russian officials told US diplomats in Baghdad that the Americans should avoid Syrian airspace during a Russian operation of uncertain duration. US officials rejected the demand.
A US defence official said: “While we would welcome a constructive role by Russia in this effort [to deconflict strikes], today’s demarche hardly seems indicative of that sort of role and will in no way alter our operations.”
He added that the strikes underscored the need for “meaningful deconfliction discussions very soon”.
Later on Wednesday, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met and announced they were launching a new diplomatic initiative in the search for a political solution in Syria, perhaps meeting as soon as Thursday to discuss deconfliction.
They conceded that the two countries remained far apart on important issues, such as the future of Assad, but said they had agreed on some smaller confidence-building steps that might build momentum for broader progress.
Neither man, however, said what those steps would be. Both said they had first to be checked with their respective capitals.
“We also agreed that it is imperative to find a solution to this conflict and to avoid escalating it in any way and see it intensify by forces beyond anybody’s control,” said Kerry.
Syrian rebels and opposition media outlets claimed that Russian aircraft carried out strikes in the central provinces of Homs and Hama that allegedly killed at least 24 people.
Activists in Hama said Russian fighter jets targeted the town of Lataminah, north of the city. Homs Media Centre, a pro-opposition media outlet, identified 22 individuals killed in what was described as Russian strikes in the town of Talbiseh, in the north of the province. It was not immediately possible to verify the claims.
Other video footage from Hama showed warplanes that the opposition said were Russian jets, but which were difficult to identify positively from a distance.
A commander with a Syrian rebel group known as Tajammu al-Izzah, which operates in northern Hama and claims allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, said his organisation’s base in the foothills of Hama had been targeted by Russian warplanes.
The group was one of the few in Syria to have received anti-tank rockets and had regularly used them against Syrian armour. Tajammu al-Izzah is thought to be one of a small number of opposition groups to have been vetted by US defence teams in Turkey.
If confirmed, these attacks are an indication that Russia’s campaign in Syria will be more expansive and will target opposition fighters battling to topple the Assad regime, rather than focusing on Isis. Putin has repeatedly cast Assad as part of the solution rather than part of the problem in Syria.
The US official did not provide confirmation of the Russian targets, but said the Russians had indicated, through a communication delivered to the US embassy in Baghdad, that Wednesday’s strikes inaugurated a Russian air campaign, not a one-off bombing run – the fruit of an aggressive Russian buildup centred on the airbase in Latakia that has prompted intrigue and concern in the west as to Russia’s goals.
“The US-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy Isil,” the defence official said.
The apparent geography of the strikes raises doubts that US and Russian pilots would in fact risk a confrontation, however. The early reports from the anti-Assad activists in Hama and Homs suggest the strikes occurred further west than the US has ever bombed, deep into territory where the Assad regime still maintains a tenuous hold, and probably within range of its air defences. The US has tended not to strike territory where Isis and Assad actively vie for control.
David Cameron, currently in Jamaica, said his evaluation of Russia’s move would depend on the targets. “I have a clear view that if this is a part of international action against [Isis], that appalling terrorist death cult outfit, then that is all to the good,” said the British prime minister.
“If, on the other hand, this is action against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step but let us see exactly what has happened.”
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, warned Russia that its military intervention could mean Moscow shares criminal responsibility for the regime’s use of barrel bombs against its own people.
He said Britain was still trying to confirm the targets of the airstrikes, but added: “Now the Russians are very openly and ostentatiously there propping up the regime, they are vulnerable to international pressure. They have a shared responsibility. They may arguably have a legal exposure to this barrel bombing activity. Barrel bombing is criminal. It breaches international humanitarian law.”
Hammond said the impact of the Russian strikes would depend on their targets. “These are the first Russian strikes and the targets will be symbolic. The targets won’t have been selected by accident,” he said shortly before a Russian-chaired session of the UN security council on the issue.
At the session, Lavrov announced that Moscow would circulate a draft resolution to provide a mandate for a multilateral coalition against Isis, “based on international law”.
Russia has made clear that no military action in Syria can be legal without the approval of the Syrian government. The US, UK and France reject the legitimacy of the regime, in view of its role in suspected war crimes, and argue that western airstrikes in Syria are legal under the UN charter because they are a response to Isis sourcing attacks from Syrian territory against an ally, Iraq.
“I would be astonished if anything came out of the meeting,” said Hammond. “I don’t think the security council will be willing to say anything that doesn’t involve a reference to Assad ultimately not being part of the new Syria, and I don’t see the Russians at this stage being able to accept that kind of language.”
The strikes came after Putin received permission from parliament for Russian forces to act on foreign soil. The federation council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, held a swift, closed session on Wednesday morning in which it unanimously approved Putin’s request.
Putin said in New York that Russia would not carry out ground operations in Syria, and his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, emphasised this again on Wednesday, saying the request to the federation council referred exclusively to airstrikes.
He did not give any figures of the number of planes likely to be involved or the number of Russian military specialists on the ground inside Syria to back up the operation. He also insisted western bombing raids in Syria were illegal.
“You all know well that in the territory of Syria and Iraq … a number of countries are carrying out bombing strikes, including the United States,” said Ivanov.
“These actions do not conform with international law. To be legal they should be supported either by a resolution of the UN security council, or be backed by a request from the country where the raids are taking place.”
Ivanov said Assad had asked Russia for military assistance, making Russia’s actions legitimate.
Putin had told the UN the world should come together to fight Isis in the same way as it joined forces to fight Hitler in the second world war, though differences between Russia and the west over the role and fate of Assad have always made it unlikely that a broad coalition will emerge.
Putin spent 90 minutes in a bilateral meeting with Obama after his speech to the UN general assembly, about half of which was spent discussing Syria. The main disagreement was on the future role of Assad.
While Putin has characterised the Syrian president as a heroic fighter against terrorism, Kerry reiterated again on Wednesday that “by definition” Isis could not be defeated while Assad remained in power.